Washington is the only west coast state in the U.S. that allows Atlantic salmon net pen farming in open water. That may change in the wake of a summer spill of more than 300,000 of the non-native fish into Puget Sound.
A bill that would phase out the practice got a first hearing in Olympia Tuesday. SB 6086 would prohibit new leases or extensions of leases on net-pens for non-native finfish aquaculture. It would also add new regulations on existing operations.
Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, introduced it before the short legislative session began. He told a packed committee hearing that the industry poses too many risks to the state’s investments of hundreds of millions of dollars in native salmon recovery.
More than 100,000 Atlantic salmon are still at large after the collapse of the net pen off Cyprus Island. Some of those fish have made it 45 miles up the Skagit River.
“Having these fish, which are considered under our own laws a pollutant, in our ecosystem makes no sense if we are going to continue to recover our marine ecosystem,” Ranker said.
The company that owns the Cyprus Island facilities where the net pen collapsed this summer is Cooke Aquaculture. Cooke responded before the committee, stating that the bill would not phase out the industry, but would wipe it out because of new regulations.
“You hear a lot of talk about language like moratoriums and phase outs, but make no mistake,” said spokesman Troy Nichols. “The way the bill is currently drafted today will provide little opportunity for these facilities to function, even under their current leases.”
Others from Cooke said the company has only been in Washington for a year and is investing $70 million to improve its facilities here, which it acquired from Icicle Seafoods in 2016.
The company employs 80 people in rural areas, which they argue should mean something to lawmakers who have been sponsoring initiatives to support that kind of job creation.
But opponents of net pens argue the risk posed by escaped fish, possible diseases and pollutants from farmed fish pellets is too great.
Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, echoed Ranker, saying it doesn’t make sense to allow net pens when the state has invested so heavily in recovery of native salmon. He said Cooke was trying to put its economic interests ahead of others', especially those of tribal fisheries.
“And the tribal fishery is extremely important in this state. And by having your Atlantic salmon, you’re depressing the market prices of what wild salmon we do have and what we’re trying to recover,” McCoy said "And I find that very egregious.”
The affected leases are all held by Cooke and would expire gradually between 2022 and 2025. The legislation includes eligibility for dislocated workers to get extended unemployment and retraining benefits.